The Checkout

Voucher Voodoo

"Fraud!" screamed the e-mail.

The note was from a colleague who was ticked off about American Airline's voucher policy. Passengers get these vouchers -- for $100, $200 or whatever -- when they agree to be bumped from an overbooked flight or when the airline is feeling generous and wants to compensate for lost luggage, delayed flights or some other unpleasant experience.

But as my colleague discovered, you can't use these vouchers online; you can only take advantage of the vouchers by making a reservation on the phone or in person. And since American charges $10 to make a reservation over the phone and $15 when you do it in person, that means your $200 voucher isn't worth $200 (or whatever its initial value was). "In other words the face value of every voucher is a lie," my colleague wrote. The airline is forbidding a customer from booking online and then penalizing him/her for not booking online, he added.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner said passengers cannot redeem a voucher at, at least not yet. Redeeming vouchers online "represents a technological challenge for us," he said. The airline hopes to overcome that challenge "but we do not yet have a timeframe for when we can make that happen."

The problem is not unique to American. Travel guru Terry Trippler of says he hears that complaint a lot. "People don't always get exactly what they thought." He says travelers are often too eager to grab vouchers without realizing there could be a number of restrictions making them less valuable than travelers expected.

Northwest Airlines, he said, has the best voucher system; they are electronic and can be redeemed for anything, such as paying for excess baggage. "It is just like a gift certificate," he said.

But other airlines have restrictions: The vouchers may not be transferable to another person, and they may be good only for economy class seats. And as my colleague discovered they may not be redeemable online, which means there are fees involved.

That may not constitute fraud, but it certainly merits this advice: caveat emptor.

By  |  May 15, 2006; 6:00 AM ET Consumer Tips
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I have had this experience...I had a voucher on American and was told by a ticket agent on the phone that I would be charged $10 for using it. I even posed the question to him, "So you won't allow me to book my ticket online, but you will still charge me the $10 fee to book it over the phone? How does that make sense?" He wasn't able to give me an answer.
I have also used the Northwest vouchers-they are incredibly easy to use. The other airlines should follow their lead.

Posted by: AA Vouchers | May 15, 2006 8:52 AM

But the passengers are still getting $90, $90, or whatever (less $10) to use towards another flight? It seems a little silly to be complaining about $10 with the price of airfare being what they are. Perhaps they should be glad that the airline didn't charge them the $50, $75, or $100 for making a change to their travle plans when the accepted the vouchers in the first place.

Posted by: ABH | May 15, 2006 10:35 AM

TO ABH: You're missing the point- these vouchers are given if AA BUMPS YOU off of a flight or loses your luggage or otherwise inconveniences you- not bc YOU changed your plans. So they should simply waive the booking fee or state a lower face value.

Posted by: mc | May 15, 2006 10:51 AM

I too had this happen, unfortunately it was on a $40 voucher, for an itinerary with two people. That's a fairly large hit when you have to take off 50% off in fees! The good news is the $40 was left over from numerous flights on a $600 voucher so I've gotten my moneys' worth. But it still stinks and customer service refuses to refund the money charge...

Note to others, a one year voucher can be extended another year by spending part of it, so say you have $600, you can use part for a flight to say CHI, then have another year to spend the remainder.

Posted by: iolaire | May 15, 2006 11:26 AM

I've had vouchers from Northwest, Delta and U.S. Airways. Northwest was the easiest - able to use online. Delta and U.S. Airways require you to go in person (or travel agent) but they don't charge you a fee. Shame on American Airlines.

Posted by: Frequent Flyer | May 15, 2006 12:16 PM

Even though Southwest's voucher says you have to use it in person (which would mean buying higher fares than available online), they actually let you send in the voucher after a flight (even if purchased online), and they credit back your card, and even send you back a new voucher if funds remain.

Also, I had the same annoyance you describe with United. After lots of complaining back and forth via e-mail, they sent me an e-voucher for $25.

Posted by: mg | May 15, 2006 12:30 PM

United Airlines operates the same way. They issue you credit vouchers or include vouchers in the Entertainment Book that require a $10-$15 outlay because they are not accepted online. You have to call their reservations number or go to the airport to redeem. If calling reservations number, you still have to send in the certificate and they will ticket you upon receipt.
I have asked various United reps numerous times over the last three years as to when United was going to make these vouchers usable online. I have always been met with the same response "We're working on it." Needless to say, I don't believe that, as three years is an awfully long time to accomplish a simple task like that. My guess is that in this day of scrounging for every last penny (remember, United just joined Northwest in charging extra for preferred seat selection--want an aisle seat, fork over an extra $25), they are all too happy to leave this charge in place. If they were really serious about making usage of these vouchers customer friendly, they would have done it a long time ago. They should just be honest with us, instead of lying and saying they are working on it. Such behavior creates ill will and poses a public relations problem for them.

Posted by: Purveyor of Unfriendly Skies | May 15, 2006 12:49 PM

As a frequent flyer, I know all too well that people don't take advantage of one aspect of flying: if you get bumped or give up your seat, you can demand cash rather than vouchers. And I usually demand a hotel and meal voucher in exchange for inconveniencing me.

Posted by: travel | May 15, 2006 1:18 PM

Delta does not let you redeem vouchers online, either. One time the agent waived the fee for buying in person and one time the agent would not waive the fee. It should be built into the voucher.

Posted by: Melissa | May 15, 2006 1:45 PM

I had a similar problem with Delta several years ago. I agreed to give up my seat in exchange for a voucher for a free seat. I specifically asked if it would be good for any coach seat on any flight. The agent told me it was good for any coach seat on any flight, except holiday blackout periods, which I thought was reasonable. I then asked if this meant that as long as there was a coach seat available on a flight outside the blackout period, I could use the voucher. The agent said yes. The voucher referred only to coach seats, and not any specific class of seats. BIG mistake on my part.

When I tried to use the voucher, the reservation agent said the voucher was good only for a certain class of seats. It was not a Y class voucher (the general class for unrestricted coach), but for N or some other limited class of seating. So I was unable to use the voucher as I was told I could.

Next time, I will require any voucher to say it can be used as advertized. If they try to offer me one again, I'll ask them to write on a seat voucher that it's for any Y class seat, or, if a monetary voucher, good at any res office without fees. I was told athe gate agents have the authority to do this.

Posted by: George | May 15, 2006 3:00 PM

I got a $400 voucher from Delta for volunteering to be bumped, plus I got a 1st class seat on the next flight home. But when I finally decided to use the voucher I was told the ONLY way to use it was to appear at their ticket counter at an airport or their ticket office in a large city. Since I live in Washington, it was no big deal for me, but if I lived in a small town 200 miles from the nearest airport I would have been furious. This was a few years ago and Delta may have changed (they didn't charge a fee for making the reservations in person).

And I'm sure the AA spokesperson lied. Allowing vouchers to be used over the Internet is not a technological mystery. Make a note to check back with the spokesman a year from today and I'll bet that they STILL haven't mastered the technology. Makes you wonder if flying a plane is equally mystifying...

Posted by: Zazu | May 15, 2006 4:45 PM

Another BIG problem with using vouchers is that when you try to book a flight later using the voucher, you can find that seats are very limited, especially on popular routes. This happened to me on USAirways, where the voucher could only be used for frequent flier seats, which were not available for any of the dates I wanted. As a result, the voucher was of little value to me. I will never again volunteer to give up my seat (unless the substitute flight is one I would actually prefer), and if I am bumped involuntarily, I will demand cash instead of a voucher, as a previous poster wisely suggested.

Posted by: Voucher Avoider | May 15, 2006 5:24 PM

Since Delta makes you go to the ticket counter to redeem, if you can't get there for a week the price of the ticket has gone up by $100 or more, making the voucher worth even less - or comepletely worthless.

Posted by: Busy schedule | May 16, 2006 10:54 AM

I have used a nunmber of vouchers from USAirways. Yes, I had to go to an agent to book, but they never charged me the fee.

Posted by: Kate | May 16, 2006 3:15 PM

I had the same issue with American after getting gift certificates/vouchers through another rewards program. I also had several back and forth conversations via email and phone with various AA staff members asking about the unfairness of charging $10 to use the vouchers that were supposed to be for a free flight. I think it's highly unreasonable to demand that a customer pays for something that is billed as free. And I let AA know this in no uncertain terms. Didn't help. But it made me feel better!

Posted by: LMM | May 17, 2006 12:43 PM

United's flight vouchers are nightmares. As someone described previously, you cannot book a voucher flight online. It must be done over the phone, and yes, even then the voucher must be mailed. My problem arose from their customer service rep, who failed to tell me I needed to write my flight info on the back of the voucher. Merely sending the voucher to them in the mail seemed a bit strange to me, but I asked him several times, "I just need to mail this, right?" He assured me it was all I needed to do.

Many weeks and phone calls later, I'm still trying to get this mess untangled. The voucher claim system is sketchy, antiquated, and ultimately not even understood by United employees.

Posted by: Kate | May 30, 2006 9:41 PM

US Airways is terrible! I volunteered to get bumped off in Denver almost a year ago (note that these vouchers are good for at most, a year.)

first issue-the steward in first class was good enough to take my jacket (with the voucher in it my bad) and lose it. replacement voucher is one hundered bucks!!

second issue-as others have mentioned they treat it like frequent flyer miles and there are almost no weekend departures even on non-holiday weekends and when there are, no Sunday return trip. I work during the week and dont want to ask favors or use up vacation time just to see my Father in Michigan.

third issue-like most companies in this country they outsource their help desk-in this case to Manilla. that's inexcusable.

no more US Airways if I can help it. I hope we get a national bullet train to bankrupt them out of the short routes at least.

Posted by: Elliott Bettman, MD | June 17, 2006 4:26 PM

We got voucher from United that turned out to be worthless. Baggage claims destroyed our 300$ baby stroller and gave us a 300$ voucher. Sounds good right? The problen is no web sites (except united) accepts these. The prices on the Unites we site are outrageos compared to everyone else. They are 500$+ to go anywhere, making this voucher worthless.

Posted by: JAKE | August 6, 2006 7:00 PM

On 4/23/06 I received a US Airways Round Trip Flight Credit for an over booked flight out of Phoenix. The experience wasted 10-12 hours of my time plus days of inconvenience. In June, as I attempted to use the credit for a flight to Islip NY from Phoenix for July 28 (flight#828 and #4414) returning Aug 8, 2006 (flight #3831 & #1011), I was told the only flight that was available was if I could fly October 1, 2006 and return October 25, 2006. I attempted to change airports, (Laguardia or JFK.) to accommodate US Airways but, I was told this would only work if I could leave July 5, 2006... and return sometime in August! I was not prepared for this. I have been flying within the US for over 30 years to NY airports. This voucher is the most worthless I have ever found and I feel US Airway & America West have mislead the public and are bordering on FRAUD with it's issue policy of credit vouchers. Over the last 2 months I tried to book a flight Phx to Charlotte, NC & return. Same deal. I can get from NC to AZ but not AZ to NC... Or I can arrive in NC on 10/16 but I can only come back before I get there on 10/9..Insane!
I understand what the words "Limited and Availability" means. I also know the meaning of fraud and intentional deceit, do they? If any airline deserves to go bankrupt it is this outfit!
I contacted DOT, FAA, they say its a civil matter only. Go figure.

Posted by: Martin | September 6, 2006 2:35 PM

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